These Nerds Are Full of Surprises

11/03/2011 10:21 am EST


Igor Greenwald

Chief Investment Strategist, MLP Profits

Companies like these five should keep rolling after recently trouncing earnings estimates, writes senior editor Igor Greenwald.

We’re going to miss the earnings season now winding down. It was another quarterly cornucopia—and by the look of thinning forward estimates, possibly the last one for a while.

The profit procession took the edge off Greece and Italy and Spain, housing and joblessness, protests and political gridlock. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the stock market shot up like a rocket.

But now that most reports have come and gone, we’re back at the mercy of the news flow and the algorithms.

Qualcomm (QCOM) should do very well today after posting strong numbers last night. But most stocks—including many that recently blew away estimates—will trade on risks of a Greek default, rising Italian bond yields, the G20 summit in Cannes, and the European Central Bank decision.

As of the middle of the night, stock futures foretold a beating. [Futures bounced back just before the open on more macro news—namely, the rumored resignation of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou—Editor.]

But who can tell how things will end up? The only certainty these days is that individual stocks, and even entire asset classes, will trade together whether the mode is risk-on or risk-off. Correlations among stocks have seldom been this high. As the indispensable Reformed Broker blog observes, “The market has become One Big Fat F***ing ETF, deal with it.”

Joshua Brown’s point is that stock-picking is pointless while computers flip baskets of stocks with alarming alacrity in response to the latest rumors about Greece.

But for the patient bargain hunter, the correlated volatility can be a blessing: an opportunity to scoop up the cheap stocks that are most likely to outperform over the next couple of years.

Multiple studies have found that stocks serving up big positive earnings surprises can significantly outpace the market, to a degree that might be hard to believe. After all, a big post-earnings pop like Qualcomm is enjoying implies that much of the good news has been priced in.

Yet one 2004 study found that the most extreme earnings beats fuel share gains for three years.

The tail end of an earnings season amid a market correction is an ideal time to go hunting for such future winners. Why? Because while no one wants to pay a 10% premium today for Qualcomm, who now cares that biotech drug maker Celgene (CELG) delivered 7 cents per share above Wall Street’s estimates last week, and raised its annual view, forcing 2012 estimates notably higher?

Certainly not the computers flipping index futures. Celgene shares are down 6% since October 24, yet remain in a clear longer-term uptrend.

Chip maker Intel (INTC) beat estimates by 6 cents a share on October 18, and also provided bullish guidance. Yet annual estimates for this year and next have barely budged.

The stock is down 5% over the last four trading sessions, since breaking out to a three-year high. At nine times forward earnings, with a 3.5% forward dividend yield and a fresh $10 billion buyback, the odds seem good that the breakout isn’t done.

Cloud-computing play Citrix Systems (CTXS) also beat by 6 cents last week, and exceeded sales expectations as well. The stock popped 17% the next day, but has since given back 5%.

These are all names that should do well in the coming months, no matter how sado-masochistic Europe gets. But the 2004 study cited above was focused largely on the smaller companies that beat estimates by a country mile, not six cents.

To capture that sort of momentum, one might look to Spectrum Pharma (SPPI), which reported earnings of 34 cents a share on Friday (versus consensus expectations of 10 cents). The $600 million biotech is making a fortune on two cancer drugs, with two more in the pipeline. Revenue has tripled in a year.

The smaller of the company’s two approved drugs could get a boost from the Food and Drug Administration on November 20, notes And next year’s earnings estimates by the six analysts covering the company could once again prove too low, Briefing notes.

The stock is challenging the all-time high from July, and could keep rolling no matter how Greece votes.

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